Musical notes from Croydon Minster

By - Thursday 16th February, 2017

The history of organ and choral music in Croydon’s parish church

Photo author’s own.

A visitor to Croydon Minster once said to me that she liked to attend a morning service there every so often, because when the organist plays at the close of the service it is so good, it is just like going to a concert.

Such glorious organ music has long been a feature of many churches – and especially of Croydon Minster. The history of organ playing in this place can definitely be traced back to 1550, when an inventory of everything inside the church included the entry of “a payre of organes”. This does not necessarily mean that there were two organs in the minster, but rather that there were two bellows that supplied the air necessary to create the sound. We do now know when the first organ would have been installed – but it would have been before the date of the inventory.

A better organ builder than businessman

At various times in its history, Croydon Minster has had new organs. In 1794, a new organ was built by James Avery, a very well-known organ builder of the day. Among other organs that he constructed were the ones at Carlisle Cathedral and King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Avery was a better organ builder, though, than he was businessman. Unfortunately, he was declared bankrupt on more than one occasion and, sad to say, ended his life in a debtor’s prison. The money to build this organ was – in most part – due to a legacy, ironically, from one of the bellringers of the time.

Having such a grand new instrument, the church decided to advertise for a professional musician to become the new organist. The man they appointed was James Bartleman. He was a very well-known musician of his day. As well as being a singer in Westminster Abbey, he was a bass soloist in many concerts held not only in the capital, but in many other parts of the country, as well. Such was his link with Westminster Abbey and the esteem in which he was held, after his death he was buried within the cloisters there, with a memorial plaque that can be seen on the wall to this day.

The appointment of John Bartleman signalled a new era in organists at Croydon Parish Church (as it was known). Several musicians were appointed to the post, who later went on to become well known in the musical world of their day – and indeed, some legacies still remain. Thomas Walmisley was appointed an organist when he was just 16 years old. He went up to Cambridge a few years later, eventually becoming Professor of Music. None of his music was published before his death, but one of his settings of the Nunc dimittis and The Magnificat are still in the repertoire of cathedral choirs today.

An unlikely partnership

Another Victorian appointee to the organist post was John Pyke Hullah. Later in his musical career, he went on to be the leading trainer for new teachers when teacher-training colleges developed towards the end of the 19th century. In his younger days and through a connection with the great author’s sister, Hullah wrote the music for an opera entitled The Village Coquettes, whilst Charles Dickens wrote the libretto. It would seem this was quite an unlikely partnership. It was performed in theatres both in London and Edinburgh without ever becoming the popular success Hullah had hoped. The opening night of this opera in London was at St James’s Theatre on 5th December 1836.

One of the longest-serving of the organists was Frederick Cambridge, who remained at Croydon for over 40 years. He appears to be the first occupant of the post who also taught music here as well, in this instance to private pupils. Although he was a great success as an organist, as well as contributing to the musical life of our town, Cambridge’s personal story contains a particular element of sadness and tragedy.

Remembered in Postman’s Park

Back in 1901, the family were on holiday in Ostend, Belgium. Whilst they were enjoying a day on the beach, a cry went up that someone was in difficulties in the water. Cambridge’s two sons went to help, one in a rowing boat, the other swimming. The person in difficulty managed to be hauled into the boat, but when they turned to pull Cambridge’s son out of the waves too, he slipped beneath the surface and was lost. There is a plaque to remember John Cranmer Cambridge on the west wall of the minster. He is also remembered on a plaque in what is known as Postman’s Park, close to the site of the present-day Museum of London, where a series of ceramic tiles commemorate the heroic, but ultimately tragic efforts, of ordinary folk to rescue someone in their moment of dire need.

It used to be a common expression that show business stars only played the Fairfield Halls twice; once when their career was on the up, the other when it was on the wane. For many of the organists of Croydon Minster, it was the first of these two statements that rings true. Several of them began their musical careers here, before going on to greater achievements elsewhere.

One such organist, who in his early career played at Croydon, eventually found his name in lights in the West End. F Rowland Tims left to play the organ in a travelling entertainment group before gaining employment in one of the big cinemas in central London, the Gaumont Haymarket, where he would improvise and accompany the silent movies of the day. His skills led him to have a recording contract with HMV, although his eminent positions were not so long lasting as he would have wanted, because the “talkies” took over in cinema.

A huge influence on church music

The link that the church had with the Royal School of Church Music in Addington provided several organists in the second half of the 20th century. Without mentioning them all, the list includes Roy Massey, who later became organist and Master of the Choristers at Hereford Cathedral, Peter Nardone, the current Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral and Michael Fleming, who was the Warden of the Royal School of Church Music and who was a huge influence on Anglican church music, writing hymn tunes that are still sung today. Martin How, still playing and composing today in his 80s, is the last of the line of musicians associated with the church, who also worked at the RSCM.

If you attend a current service at Croydon Minster, or if you are passing by when the procession of choristers and lay clerks of the choir is making its way to the west door of the church, then you will know that the traditions of Anglican church music are very much alive. The current holder of the post of Director of Music is Ronny Krippner, who combines his musical work in the church with that at Whitgift School. In recent years singers, when they have left school, have gone on to sing with such outstanding choirs as King’s College, Cambridge.

Find out more about music at the minster

If you want to find out more about the music at the minster, then there are two ways to do so. The first is to look out for a new book being launched in May, entitled Minster Notes, written by David Morgan, and published by Filament Publishing. This book will contain information about many of the organists associated with Croydon Minster, as well as memories of a former chorister. David, who sings bass in the church choir, published his first book in 2016 about historical characters associated with the church over the years called Minster Tales.

The second is to come to one of the main services at the minster, where you can hear for yourself the tradition of Anglican church music being upheld and developed in a superb fashion.

David Morgan

David Morgan

Retired Croydon headteacher and now education officer for Croydon Minster. Bass lay clerk in the Minster's choir.

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  • Richard Harrold

    There appear to be several transpositions of John/James in this story. I would also have liked to see an update on the church’s plans for the (last I knew) largely unplayable 4-manual Hill organ.

  • Pamela Hall

    Latest news on the restoration of the organ is that we still have some way to go to reach our target of £250,000 and meanwhile less than 60% of the organ is now playable. We’re currently applying for another grant which requires letters of support from people who love and value this instrument. If you feel you could help, please send us a letter or email to the Minster; or better still, donate online at our website: